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Taking iPads into battle

Phones and other smart devices are being tested across all branches of the military. Seeing an opportunity, software firms and defense contractors are developing apps that will enable soldiers to pass along intelligence, view reconnaissance images or even pilot small drones by remote control.

September 25, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • Marine Capt. Jim Carlson uses an iPad while sitting in his Super Cobra attack helicopter at Camp Pendleton. The use of this and other smart devices is raising cyber-security concerns among military strategists.
Marine Capt. Jim Carlson uses an iPad while sitting in his Super Cobra attack… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

As a Cobra attack helicopter pilot, Marine Capt. Jim "Hottie" Carlson was running support missions above Afghanistan last summer when it occurred to him that it was taking far too long to find where U.S. troops were under attack.

"Do you have any idea how long it takes to find the right map, unfold it, and find where you're going? It's agonizing," he said.

Frustrated that he had to flip through dozens of maps stuffed inside his chopper, Carlson, 31, loaded the documents onto his personal iPad, enabling him to zoom in, zoom out and quickly move from one map to another.

Carlson's brainstorm shortened the time it took to pinpoint a location from "three minutes to about 30 seconds," he recalled recently, and it soon helped change the way the military is thinking about warfare. The Marines now have more than 30 iPads in cockpits across their fleet of helicopters and fighter jets.

For soldiers in the 21st century, iPads, iPhones, Androids and other smart devices could eventually be as common on the battlefield as helmets, canteens and rifles.

These devices are being tested across all branches of the military. Seeing an opportunity, software companies and defense contractors are developing mobile applications that will enable soldiers to pass along intelligence, view reconnaissance images or even pilot small drones by remote control.

This high-tech hand-held revolution, of course, opens the military up to the same problems that everybody else with a smart device faces — security threats and concerns about dropped service. There are concerns among military strategists about passing military secrets on a device that can easily be hacked.

In years past, the Pentagon probably would have spent billions of dollars creating its own custom devices, but modern technology offers a much cheaper alternative, said Michael McCarthy, who leads an effort by the Army to test smartphones for use on the battlefield.

The Army is using iPhones, Androids and BlackBerrys in mock wartime situations in New Mexico and Texas.

Such devices are coming in handy in simulated security raids and checkpoint stops to take pictures of Arabic writing and gather biometric data, such as fingerprints and iris scans, McCarthy said.

"It's all about information gathering, and tools to make the job easier," he said.

The troops are also testing about 95 mobile applications, or apps, designed to help soldiers perform specific tasks with their cellphones. One app is dubbed Soldier Eyes. "Imagine that you're dropped in an unknown location on a moonless night," McCarthy said. "You open this app and through its GPS coordinates, it shows you where you are. It shows you where your adjacent units are."

It can also provide cumulative information about the region, he said, showing how many roadside bomb attacks have occurred and when they took place.

The app is being developed by Overwatch Mobile Solutions, a subsidiary of Textron Inc., in close collaboration with the Army.

"A typical soldier carries a map, a compass, a radio and a GPS," said Evan Corwin, a senior program manager at Overwatch. "This enables them to have all of that on one device."

In all, the Army said it has spent about $4.2 million over two years to develop the apps and test smartphones.

The Air Force and Navy also have pilot programs testing smart-device technology. But the devices are risk-prone and susceptible to security breaches that could threaten military secrets.

Internet security firm McAfee Inc. recently found that malware, short for "malicious software," targeting smartphones and tablets is on the rise.

The widespread adoption of mobile devices is likely to bring about "an explosion" of attacks, McAfee said. "Given our historically fragile cellular infrastructure and slow strides toward encryption, user and corporate data may face serious risks."

Critics wonder what will happen if a soldier's Android is hacked or infected with malware.

"The military is opening themselves up to serious problems," said Chris Soghoian, a privacy and security researcher at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University. "It seems stupid to use a platform that thousands of people are trying to hack."

Storing data on the phones will end up disclosing military information, or showing the enemy precisely where the troops are through the devices' GPS transmitters, Soghoian said. "It's a recipe for disaster."

Symantec Corp., known for its personal computer security software, is developing a product called O3 that officials say could secure wireless military networks. Much of the company's planning will depend on how the Army wants to proceed on smartphone security.

If the Army was to decide to put a smartphone in the hands of every soldier, it alone would need to buy 1.2 million phones. That could be a major source of revenue for phone makers.

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